The sky is
falling, the sky is falling. What Chicken Little once cackled as cries
of alarm might today be viewed by protective apparel manufacturers
as a marketing bonanza. With governments regularly sounding alarms,
sales of garments are busting at the seams as everyone from hazmat
responders to housewives are looking for products that will protect
them from chemical, biological and even radioactive attacks.
|Containment suits such
as these Tychem garments from DuPont are drawing much attention
as a result of heightened concerns about terrorist attacks.
Photo courtesy of DuPont.
At a time when duct tape and plastic sheeting have become household
necessities, the demand for and focus on protective apparel have never
been higher. Still reeling from 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacksthe
frayed nerves of the American public were further inflamed when the
federal government raised the national security alert status to orangethe
second most severe rating-last month. The escalation sent many civilians
in search of protective suits, gas masks and anything in the hardware
store offering the least bit of protection.
While it may seem like rich times for protective garment manufacturers
and their nonwovens suppliers, many say consumer clamor for protective
wear presents as many headaches as opportunities. With some inquiries
seeking suits for cows and pets, one garment maker said the security
alert is bringing them out of the woodwork.
Even legitimate requests pose a potential problem. Safety suits are
designed to protect against specific hazardous agents; a single suit
is incapable of protecting against all possible hazards. Additionally,
most products on the market require training for proper protectionsomething
consumers are unlikely to undertake. Donning the garments properly
with the appropriate respirator is no easy feat. Worn improperly,
protective apparel can actually pose a danger to the untrained user,
one apparel manufacturer warned.
While garment makers say sales are rising in these wary times, some
view consumer demand with skepticism. Likening the trends to the building
of basement fallout bunkers in the 1950s, protective apparel manufacturers
say civilian demand will ebb and flow with the focus of the media.
The bread and butter of their business, they add, will continue to
be industrial customers, whose need is constant.
According to INDA, Association of the Nonwovens Fabric Industry,
Cary, NC, the disposable protective apparel market for nonwovens
is worth $290 million in North America. Duponts flashspun
Tyvek products account for an estimated 80% of this total, making
it the unchallenged leader. Of the remainder, SMS materials account
for roughly 15%, with spunbond and spunlace nonwovens making up
the balance. Products included in the category are disposable apparel
for industrial facilities, paint shops, nuclear plants, hazardous
waste teams, agricultural sites and cleanrooms.
DuPonts dominance stems from its role as both a supplier of
nonwoven fabrics and a finished apparel maker. The company expanded
its market share in late 2001 when it acquired Kappler Safety Groups
garment line to supplement its own apparel products. Wilmington,
DE-based DuPonts line includes protective garments for a wide
variety of occupations. Aside from garments made from nonwovens,
it also offers protective apparel using other fabrics.
The companys success in the market can be attributed to its
proprietary technology, Tyvek. This flashspun olefin offers excellent
dry particulate protection as well as durability. Garments made
from treated Tyvek have been tested against some 280 contaminants
and even offer limited protection against biological agents such
as anthrax, according to DuPont. Within the protective apparel market,
competitors are all hoping to develop a substitute fabric with Tyvek-like
While not as dominant as DuPont, Kimberly-Clark is another major
manufacturer in the protective apparel sector. And, like the market
leader, this Dallas, TX-based company produces both the nonwoven
and the finished product. It offers a variety of gowns and suits
using its own SMS nonwovens.
|Its not enough
these days to protect against just chemical and biological agents.
This military suit from Radiation Shield Technology has radiation
protective performance similar to that of lead; emergency worker
and even civilian versions are also in the works. Photo courtesy
On the roll goods side of the business, producers
such as BBA Nonwovens are focusing on improving the resin technology
of SMS nonwovens as well as composites. According to Jeff Willis,
business manager for protective fabrics at BBA, SMS will penetrate
more of the market in the future because of its performance characteristics.
He said that the company is focusing on laminates to optimize performance
characteristics while providing comfort and strength.
SMS is gaining share due to its excellent balance of barrier
and protection, Mr. Willis added. Nonwovens companies
that can add value by combining fabrics with different properties
Is It Sustainable?
Although it might seem that DuPont, Kimberly-Clark and other apparel
makers stand to benefit from the countrys upgraded security
concerns, few see it as a sustainable revenue source. Certainly
government sales have risen, and civilians may also create more
demand in the near future. However, as domestic security concerns
ease, that demand may decline proportionately. Still, for now, the
market is enjoying a strong boost.
Right after the Anthrax (attack) came out, we put together
technical information on our products for our team. We literally
ran out of inventory on all the microporous and film laminated materials,
said Beth Hohl, manager, marketing and R&D, for Kimberly-Clark
Safety Division. Since then, weve had a harder time
forecasting our needs.
Indeed the surge of interests in protective clothing has helped
producers such as Kimberly-Clark post double-digit growth in that
segment. Some companies have even reported doubling their sales
in the past two years, in part due to a growing consumer base. Kits
containing a suit, respirator and other accessories are available
to the public through various distributors.
Not all garment makers see explosive sales. Although it dominates
the category, DuPont said growth has been tempered. There
has been more demand, said spokeswoman Beth Huber. Has
it been dramatic? No.
She said that despite the recent focus on safety garments, there
is much confusion about the role they serve. Who needs garments?
What level of protection is necessary? Who will be responsible for
training users to properly wear them? Those are just some of the
questions that professional emergency responders might ask. Throw
in the consumer and the level of confusion rises further.
such as garments for paint shops account for the bulk of protective
apparel sales. Photo courtesy of Kimberly-Clark Safety Division.
Ms. Huber said her company offers a range of products
that meet just about all of the markets needs. While DuPont
is always seeking ways to improve garment performance and durability,
product improvement isnt its only focus. At a time when uninformed
consumers are reaching out for products, she said the company wants
to ensure that buyers understand their proper use. We take
a strong position that if youre not trained, you shouldnt
be using these garments.
Ms. Hubers sentiments arent alone. Charlie Roberson,
the marketing manager for the SoftGUARD fabric line at Precision
Fabrics Group, Greensboro, NC, said his company saw a short-term
spike following 9/11, attributed to purchases by first responders.
The nonwovens producer has since seen sales resume to their normal
With increased interest in protective garments came customer inquiries
about products protection performance, requiring fabric suppliers
to perform additional testing.
Manufacturers were forced to test fabrics against chemicals
that were previously considered unnecessary, Mr. Roberson
While the vast number of biological and chemical agents available
for attacks complicates suit selection, there are many standards
and testing results that can help end users make the right choice.
Organizations such as ASTM International (formerly the American
Society for Testing and Materials) and the National Fire Protection
Agency (NFPA) have published standards by which testing is performed.
A battery of ASTM tests is used industry wide to gauge a fabrics
tensile strength, air and liquid permeability and chemical resistance.
Manufacturers use the ASTM test results as a reference for end users.
Recently, the NFPA released its 1994 standard, which covers protective
ensembles for chemical/biological terrorism incidents. This follows
two other standards for garments for vapor and liquid splash protection.
Bruce Teele, senior fire safety specialist at the NFPA, said the
1994 standards were issued in 2001, prior to the 9/11 attacks. They
are currently under review for additional revisions to be published
The current standards specify three classes of suits: classes 1,
2 and 3 for different levels of protection. It also calls for fabrics
to be tested against highly penetrating agents such as VX, lewisite,
mustard and sarin gas.
One of the problems of evaluating fabrics against these agents is
that only military labs can access them. Fabric manufacturers must
contract those facilities to conduct the testing, which is costly
and time consuming. As a result, few protective garments on the
market meet the 1994 standards. Mr. Teele said while he understands
the difficulty facing manufacturers, he also expressed disappointment
with those manufacturers, saying they could be more robust
in their efforts to introduce compliant suits.
Protection against chemicals and biological agents is not enough
for some; radiation attacks have also crept into the conscience
of Americans. Talk of dirty bombs has many on edge.
One company is already employing nonwovens in a radiation-blocking
suit. Miami, FL-based Radiation Shield Technology (RST) recently
began offering nonwovens-based suits with radiation and chemical
protection benefits. Using what the company described as a hybrid
nonwoven, its suits offer protection against x-ray, alpha, beta
and low levels of gamma rays. In testing conducted at the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, Columbia University and the Georgia
Institute of Technology, the companys core technology, Demron,
was shown to have radiation-blocking abilities rivaling that of
lead. It was also cited by Livermore Lab officials as effective
as a radiation shield, according to the company.
According to Jon Hefler, operations coordinator at RTS, the companys
main customer base is the military; he declined to provide additional
details about his companys work for the armed forces. However,
the company will soon launch products for municipal employees as
well as consumers with an emphasis on first response workers such
as police officers, firefighters and hazmat crews. Other buyers
could include power plant and medical workers. RST has started taking
preorders for civilian suits.
It will offer class A-D garments that protects against nuclear,
chemical and biological agents and fire retardent and bomb suits.
Demron was originally developed by Ronald DeMeo, a surgeon who sought
to find better protection against x-rays in the operating room.
The company said the material took 10 years to develop and can be
incorporated into construction materials, aircrafts and other products
in addition to protective apparel.
Mr. Hefler said the technologys strongest selling point is
the suits ability to comfortably provide radiation protection.
It is also a much lighter alternative to lead. Theres
really nothing like it out there right now, he claimed.
With the protective apparel market focused on chemical, nuclear
and biological protection, it seems that the bulk of the business
goes unnoticed. Safety garments used at chemical plants, paint shops,
farms, machinery shops and other locations still account for the
largest portion of the segments nonwovens sales. While garments
available on the market for the most part meet customers performance
requirements, they are also constantly asking for improvements in
comfort, air flow, durability and lower pricing.
Customers demands regarding the protective apparel products
themselves have not changed significantly over the past few years,
said Precision Fabrics Mr. Roberson. All of my customers
can describe the holy graila fabric that offers
a barrier to all of the hazards in their workplace, that will breathe
like a cotton T-shirt and costs half as much as one, but they also
realize that this product does not exist.
What nonwovens producers can offer, he added, is test data to guide
customers in picking the fabric that best suits their needs.
Nonwovens are also growing in other niche protective apparel applications
such as high-visibility safety clothing. These products are typically
worn by department of transportation crews, sanitation workers and
even landscapers. The key performance requirement, explained Doug
Daigler, product manager for national accounts at WearGuard, is
that the fabric maintains color integrity and luminosity and doesnt
shrink after washing because garment visibility is the most important
criteria. Wearguard manufactures a line of high-visibility clothing,
including knit jerseys and jackets made from 100% polyester.
A lesser requisite is that the garment is comfortable under hot
conditions. Mr. Daigler said nonwovens meet all of his customers
requirements, including standards set by ANSI. The company is now
developing an inner-layer garment, made possibly out of nonwovens,
that would help draw heat and moisture from the user to provide
Whether its brightly-colored vests or full-containment suits,
the range of protective apparel applications continues to grow.
A wide gamut of roll goods offered by nonwovens producers gives
garment manufacturers many choices. As new resin technology emerges
and improved substrates are introduced, users, whether emergency
response professionals or civilians, can expect more comfortable
garments that protect them from a greater number of hazards they
might encounter at work or in the home.